I would like to share this guest blog with you today from someone who has had to learn to accept chronic pain as part of his life, but is no longer ruled by it. He's gone the full cycle, from being a very active person, to not being able to do much at all, to actually being able to do some jogging again and has agreed to share some of the lessons he's learned with us.
This year, it’s 25 years since the first of my four lower-back surgeries, a laminectomy (L4/5) in 1991 – then still in my early 20s – followed by fusions in the late 90s (L4/5, failed), early 2000s (L4/5) and in 2010 (L3-5).
Due to damage to my spinal cord (causing chronic pins and needles) and arthritis of the face joints (think creaking joints, almost like the hinges of a dilapidated door!), I will never again be totally pain-free. Add to that muscles in the lower back and up into the shoulder blades that easily become agitated (everyday stiffness to severe spasm), and, let’s just say, it’s a bit of a toxic mix…
I cannot remember what it feels like to be pain-free anymore. At the worst of times pain fully governed my life, at the best of times it dictated how I planned out my days (sorry mate, no beers tonight – that kind of thing).
On the plus side, living with acute, chronic pain for years and years means it is my new normal. You have to accept it, and then move on. The question is … at what level do you want your “normal” to be?
Over the years, I have learnt a few lessons. I want to focus on four:
1. Inactivity is pain’s bedfellow
When in pain, the inclination is to rather not exercise. Big mistake. For it becomes a spiral from where it gets harder and harder to escape.
2. When you exercise, know your limits
I was a sports nut, which means I’m “pre-programmed” to want to push my body to see what it can achieve. No pain no gain? I’ll start some form of training, get into it, push myself … and inevitably break down in a big way, taking weeks – in some cases months – just to get back to square one.
Out of the above, #2 was harder for me to achieve than #1, for I have always been fairly active in one way or another. But even so, I have to work at both.
If you suffer from a situation similar to mine, you will understand when I say that over the years I have seen and worked with several professionals to deal with my pain – in three different markets around the world. Which brings me to lesson #3 (it seems obvious, but it took me years to get right):
3. Find someone who fully understands your problem,
and work with them. A big problem I found was working with people who – as this is the “accepted” trajectory for “improving” the body – pushed me to do more, do move A, B or Z or whatever. Inevitably my body broke down, which as I said above meant it all counted for none. No two people are the same; you need your programme customised. It’s therefore vital you find the right person to work with.
I have. And am happy to say this August, for the first time in 25 years, I’ve been working out for a full 12 months without serious injury. It feels amazing, for example, to be able to go for a short run now and again (don’t want to pound the back too much!). Even as recently as 15 months ago I would never have thought…
Of course, I am not pain free. Heck, sometimes I still have a day or three of sheer agony. The damage to my spinal cord is permanent, the instruments (L3-5) in my back are permanent, the limitations it brings a fact of life.
4. Accept and understand you’ll have good days and bad days.
It’s always a cycle. Once you accept that, the bad days become more bearable and the good days more enjoyable. Keep that in mind, and do the right things when you are in a “down cycle” to break through as quickly as you can again.
All said and done, after 12 months of being able to exercise without major interruption, I feel fitter, stronger and happier (do you remember how grrreat endorphins make you feel?!) than I have been for a long, long time.
Three things I focus on:
Here are the three top things I focused (focus) on:
1. Flexibility and mobility
Combined, I do at least a couple of hours a week focused on improving my mobility, flexibility and posture. Be warned, however, it’s a process and the going can be slow. But if anything, this is the one area not to skimp on. It makes the world of difference and builds the foundation for doing more.
2. Build strength
Linked to the above, I work very hard at strengthening my core, and after that I have a bit of “fun” doing other strengthening exercises too. The core is especially important as in my case it helps stabilise the back and, in combination with #1, improves posture, taking some of the strain off the spine.
3. Diet and fitness
When you feel healthier and fitter, you’re generally speaking in a much healthier state of mind. Feeling down in the dumps – brought on so easily by pain and its impact on your life – is the enemy of getting better and coping with the down cycles when they inevitably come. Besides, it has obvious physical benefits too. For example, you know the term “fighting weight” for athletes, right? When you suffer from acute, chronic pain you also want to reach your ultimate “fighting weight” to take off the strain and fend off the pain.
Work with someone that understands your pain, find out what works for your body and go for it. Remember, some of us cannot beat pain into submission, but I believe, for as long as you can, there are things you can do not to fall slave to your pain.
Life’s much happier that way.